The warring sides in Yemen’s long conflict will exchange some 1,081 prisoners on Thursday and Friday under a deal struck in Switzerland last month, a senior rebel official said.
Planes carrying prisoners took off from three airports in an operation to return hundreds of men home and help build trust to enable new talks to end a devastating war, in the largest swap of its kind in the five-year-old conflict.
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“The transaction will be executed, with God’s help, on the scheduled dates today and tomorrow,” Abdel Kader Mortaza, the rebel official in charge of prisoner affairs, said in a tweet on Thursday. “The preparations have been completed by all parties.”
Yemen’s government, which is supported by a Saudi Arabia-led military coalition, and Houthi rebels resolved to swap some 15,000 detainees as part of a peace deal brokered by the United Nations in Stockholm back in 2018.
The two sides have since undertaken sporadic prisoner exchanges, but this week’s planned swap would mark the first large-scale handover since the war erupted in 2014.
UN envoy Martin Griffiths hailed it as a “very important milestone” when the agreement was struck after a week of talks in Switzerland last month.
A spokeswoman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is handling the logistics of the operation, said their teams were present at a number of different airports involved in the transfer.
An ICRC plane carrying Houthis released from captivity by the coalition landed in Sayoun airport in the government-held Hadramout region.
“This operation that means so much to so many families is under way,” said Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East.
Two other planes ferrying members of the Saudi Arabia-led coalition freed from detention by the Houthis landed in Sanaa airport. The returning fighters arrived to a red-carpet welcome, greeted by a military band and senior officials standing together with family members.
“Death to America, Death to Israel,” they shouted, the slogan of the Houthis.
Houthi spokesman Mohammed Abdulsalam said the swap “brings hope for peace-building”.
A coalition statement, which confirmed the plane carrying 15 Saudis and four Sudanese had landed in Riyadh, stressed the “political and military leaderships’ keenness for the return of all POWs and detainees”.
The prisoner exchange comes after the release on Wednesday of two Americans held captive in Yemen, in an apparent swap for some 240 Houthi supporters who were allowed to return home after being stranded in Oman.
Commenting on the exchange, Nabeel Khoury, a senior researcher at the Atlantic Council for Studies, said the timing of the prisoner exchange was key.
“The timing is good for the Donald Trump administration. It is one more thing for him to boast about returning US citizens before the elections,” Khoury told Al Jazeera.
“From the Houthis’ point of view, it is also a good thing because there was a move in Washington to classify them as a terrorist organisation. If it was so classified, the US administration’s hands would have been tied because they can’t deal with a terrorist organisation,” he explained.
The rebels also sent back the remains of a third American who died in captivity.
Speaking from Doha, Al Jazeera’s Hashem Ahelbarra said the exchange deal was “quite a symbolic moment.”
“Both parties are trying to portray what’s happening as a big victory which explains the number of dignitaries present,” said Ahelbarra referring to a several diplomats seen in footage from Sanaa Airport receiving the freed prisoners.